The problem with perfection: How parental pressure can leave children with positive attitudes about doping

by Justin Coulson


Despite the fact most sports-lovers despise doping, many of us still find the psychology of doping intriguing. What is it that makes a person’s will to win so great that they’ll cheat, lie, and potentially harm themselves to stand atop the podium?

This is particularly interesting because, aside from the systemic and structural factors that encourage doping (such as competition, motivational climate, team emphasis on performance, and doping control mechanisms), there are also important psychological attributes that contribute to the decision to dope.

Last year I wrote about seven psychological reasons cyclists cheat. But a couple weeks ago a new study landed on my desk that provides additional insight into our understanding of one psychological factor that increases an athlete’s vulnerability to dope: perfectionism.

Perfectionism in a sporting context is comprised of four factors:

  • Perfectionistic strivings: the athlete strives to be as good as can be, setting high standards for performance
  • Perfectionistic concerns: the athlete is focused on his or her problems, mistakes, and failure to master relevant processes
  • Pressure from parents to be perfect: the perception that a parent expects perfection and is critical of failure
  • Pressure from coaches to be perfect: the perception that a coach expects perfection and is critical of failure.

Scholars argue that perfectionism, whether due to a desire to outperform others or simply to perform optimally and outperform “self”, may shift an athlete’s mindset sufficiently for them to succumb to intense internal pressure (or perceived or real external pressure) and cheat through performance-enhancing drugs.

The authors of the new report suggest that because athletes identify more highly with perfectionistic tendencies, their attitudes towards doping will be more positive. Specifically, such athletes would be more likely to agree with statements such as “Doping is necessary to be competitive”, and “Doping is not cheating since everyone does it.” It is believed that holding such attitudes indicates a vulnerability on the part of an athlete to dope.

The researchers recruited 130 junior athletes in the United Kingdom aged 16-19 years (mean age: 17.3 years). Cyclists were not identified as contributing, but a broad cross-section of sports was included so it should be possible to generalise from the results. (Importantly, the researchers obtained the following results even when testing speed and power sports separately to sports involving high levels of motor-skills.)

First – some good news. Athletes who were striving for perfection actually held a negative attitude towards doping. The desire to be outstanding appears – at least for junior athletes – to be related to being their best without artificial enhancements. Lofty standards and high aspirations are negatively correlated with positive attitudes to doping.

The next piece of good news is this: when junior athletes sense that their coach is demanding perfection, they increase their personal strivings for perfection. As mentioned above, this personal perfection striving reduces the risk of doping.

But it seems that the perceptions children have of their parents’ promotion of perfection matter tremendously. To quote from the article: “Junior athletes who thought that their parents expected them to be perfect had more positive attitudes towards doping than junior athletes who did not think their parents had such expectations.”

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As a parent, try to imagine how your child would respond to these statements (which were used in the study):

  • My parents expect my performance to be perfect.
  • My parents criticise everything I do not do perfectly.
  • My parents are dissatisfied with me if my performance is not top-class.
  • My parents expect me to be perfect.
  • My parents demand nothing less than perfection of me.
  • My parents make extremely high demands of me.
  • My parents set extremely high standards for me.
  • My parents are disappointed in me if my performance is not perfect.

While research in academic settings tells us that it’s important to establish high expectations for our children so that they will work hard and achieve, we must be realistic in our efforts to help our children develop, particularly in competitive environments where mindsets around performance matter so much. If we push too hard for perfection, we undermine their achievement, or, in the case of this research, we promote a cheating mindset.

To reduce children’s perceptions that we, as parents, are demanding perfection, we can do the following:

  • Encourage a balanced approach to sport, acknowledging that other parts of life are important
  • Minimise criticism of athletes’ performance and instead invite collaborative analysis of ways to improve
  • Allow children to set their own values-congruent goals related to their achievement
  • Promote a mastery and process-oriented focus rather than an outcome and achievement focus
  • Speak openly and negatively about cheating.

Vince Lombardi, the legendary American football coach, said “Winning isn’t everything. It is the only thing.” Such an expectation, when passed from parent to child, appears to become ingrained, promoting a win-at-any-cost attitude that undermines the spirit of sport and ultimately harms children.

Dr Justin Coulson is the author of the #1 parenting book, 21 Days to a Happier Family, a father of six children, and a cyclist who talks about cycling more than he actually has time to cycle. Find more at www.happyfamilies.com.au.

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